Fisker loses key board member as bidders circle company

DETROIT/SAN FRANCISCO Tue May 28, 2013 6:49pm EDT

The logo of an extended rage electric vehicle Fisker Karma is pictured at the start of an electric car rally from Tallinn to Monte-Carlo in Tallinn June 1, 2012. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

The logo of an extended rage electric vehicle Fisker Karma is pictured at the start of an electric car rally from Tallinn to Monte-Carlo in Tallinn June 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ints Kalnins

DETROIT/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Fisker Automotive, the cash-strapped "green" car maker that is seeking a buyer, has lost an influential board member who was key in attracting investors to the startup in its early days.

Ray Lane, 66, resigned from the board on Friday, Lane's venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and the car maker confirmed on Tuesday.

His exit comes as Fisker fields offers from at least two different groups looking to resurrect the automaker, which hired bankruptcy advisers this year.

One group, backed by Hong Kong billionaire and Fisker investor Richard Li, is looking to buy the Fisker's government loan for pennies on the dollar. This unusual strategy is favored by some investors who would like Fisker to avoid a bankruptcy.

But Kleiner Perkins concluded it was better for Fisker to be led by board members who supported the company's new options, including the loan purchase, people familiar with the firm's thinking said. This led Lane, partner emeritus at Kleiner Perkins, to resign from Fisker's board.

Lane, who was not immediately available to comment, remains on the boards of a handful of other Kleiner-backed companies.

Kleiner Perkins was an early investor in Fisker and Lane was among the company's most visible and vocal supporters. The backing of Kleiner Perkins and Lane helped Fisker raise hundreds of millions of dollars in financing from private investors.

Despite a promising start and some celebrity fans, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Fisker suffered some missteps during the launch of the Karma which drained the company's coffers.

In early April, Fisker fired the bulk of its workforce to save cash. The company has not built a car since July.

"Please be informed that Ray Lane has elected to resign from the Fisker Automotive Board of Directors," Chief Executive Tony Posawatz said in a message to Fisker employees on Tuesday.

"I would like to personally recognize and thank Ray for his contributions to the company and wish him all the best in the future," he added.

Li's group is trying to salvage the automaker by buying Fisker's U.S. Department of Energy loan, now worth about $171 million. Fisker won the loan in 2009, but the DOE halted payments in mid-2011 when Fisker missed certain performance targets laid out in the loan agreement.

Fisker received $192 million of the full $529 million DOE loan. Last month, the DOE seized $21 million from Fisker's account to help repay a portion of the loan.

RAY LANE'S STRENGTHS

A separate group including former General Motors Co (GM.N) executive Bob Lutz and China's largest auto parts maker, Wanxiang Group, has offered to buy Fisker in a prearranged bankruptcy.

One analyst said that Fisker appears to be evolving into a boutique car company, which no longer plays to Lane's strengths.

"Ray Lane's contacts and the money he can bring are not as useful in that context," said Alan Baum, principal of automotive research firm Baum & Associates.

Lane joined Kleiner Perkins in 2000 after eight years at Oracle Corp ORCL.O, where he helped take the software company to $10 billion in revenue from $1 billion. Although his expertise lay in software, he increasingly took on clean technology, which became a focal point at Kleiner.

He led investments in companies ranging from Next Autoworks, a Carlsbad, California-based fuel-efficient car company founded by a former Oracle executive, to Chicago-based Great Point Energy, which seeks to produce low-cost natural gas from sources such as coal.

But many clean technology companies have not taken off in the way they were hoped for just a few years ago. The 2008 financial crisis stifled investment in many alternative-energy projects, while the explosion in natural gas development due to "fracking" has simultaneously undermined the economics of many of those projects.

In April, Lane resigned as chairman of Hewlett-Packard Co's (HPQ.N) board as part of broader shakeup after the company took a multi-billion dollar writedown.

One Kleiner-backed company on whose board Lane still serves is Kenandy Inc, a business-software firm. Lane has not let recent troubles distract him from his work there, said Kenandy chief executive Sandy Kurtzig.

"We've always felt his attention was 100 percent with us," said Kurtzig in an interview.

When she tried to reach him by phone recently, he was about to start the procession for the graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is chairman of the board of trustees. He called her back within two hours, she said.

(Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Maureen Bavdek and Bob Burgdorfer)

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